It is dangerous to be right when established authority is wrong. Voltaire

This paper was presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, held at St Hugh's College, Oxford, 6th-8th January 2005. It is a summary of the evidence posted on other pages throughout this website.


Peter Monamy
Reputation & Reality

Slide 1

At the end of his life William Hogarth felt burdened by a sense of frustration and despair. This was partly in the belief that his reputation had been destroyed by mockery, and partly because he felt that he had failed to stem the advancing tide of what he called "connoisseurship", and the sterility of imported standards of taste in art.

Art historians have sometimes called Hogarth the father of British painting. Sometimes Thornhill is mentioned as his first notable predecessor. Sometimes the historian instances William Dobson, who died in 1646. Who, one wonders, did Hogarth himself see as the native founder of the English view or prospect ?

I am here proposing that, for about a decade before his own celebrity, Hogarth would have looked on Peter Monamy as the prime exemplar of his hopes for an English School of painting, and the living model of a painter deserving support by British patrons committed to encouraging domestic enterprise, trade and art.

My argument is based on these points: Monamy's date and place of birth in London; his rise from within the local trade of Painter-Staining, and close identification with the Painter's Company; his prolific and versatile output, and the wide range of his artistic interests; his undoubted prominence and fame, especially during the reign of George I; the presence of his oeuvre at every level of English society; his residence for 30 years in Westminster, next to the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament; the signal importance of the marine genre in the first half of the C18th; the splendid extant portrait of him; and, to clinch the matter, the existence of a unique conversation piece entitled Monamy the Painter showing a seascape to Mr Thomas Walker.


Until 1981 all published art-historical commentaries are united in ascribing the figures in the conversation piece to William Hogarth. Well they might, since the above attribution was published in 1784 in Horace Walpole's inventory of the pictures at Strawberry Hill, and he was then the owner of this painting. From about 1983, however, it appears to have been tacitly omitted from the Hogarth canon. I have not been able to find any published support of Walpole's explicit ascription of it to Hogarth since then; with the exception of the error-strewn entry for Monamy in the Grove Dictionary of Art, 1997.

Slides 2 & 3
Conversation Piece

Hogarth would have been fully aware of the climate of criticism which led to Monamy's gradual decline in his last 15 years. He could hardly have foreseen the future course of the arts at the time of his own death in 1764, but he may well have feared the fate of those English painters that had preceded him, when quoting Shakespeare: He that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him, / And makes me poor indeed. This account will attempt to trace the manner in which Monamy's posthumous reputation has suffered at the hands of malice, ignorance, bias, and sheer stupidity.

Monamy's name is often linked, casually and injudiciously, with that of van de Velde. However, he should not be compared with the van de Veldes, or judged by standards applicable to them. This is a fundamental issue. The early English C18th art market was supplied from two diametrically opposed sources: first, by works produced by imported masters, such as the van de Veldes, and second by what James Ayres has called "The vernacular art of artisan artists trained in their craft rather than schooled in art." Monamy, however, though once a London apprentice like Hogarth, Blake, and Turner, was infinitely more than an artisan painter, and merits particular notice in English art history for the manner in which he bridged the gap between these opposite extremes.

There are two distinct threads in all posthumous comment and opinion. The first of these is appreciative. The second becomes progressively more and more distorted and even defamatory. None of these judgements, good or bad, amateur or speciously professional, are based on an honest study or detailed knowledge of Monamy's estimated 500 paintings, but rely on the repetition of hearsay and prejudice.

First Thread

George Vertue first mentioned Monamy in 1726 or '27, describing him as "prentice to a sign & house painter on London bridge; he took to the study & inclination of painting of ships --- or sea pieces from the variety of those views he had continually before his eyes where he lived when prentice. A large sea piece painted by him & presented to the Painter's Company, London. Anno 1726." It is worth noting that Vertue makes no reference to van de Velde at this time.

In 1731, however, John Faber Jnr produced a mezzotint portrait of Monamy, inscribed "Second only to van de Velde" in Latin. The unfortunate effect has been to launch a 270 year stream of misguided association. In my view the statement was originally conceived, not as an announcement that Monamy copied or necessarily followed van de Velde, but as a competitive and commercially motivated advertisement. In the wisdom of hindsight it has proved misleadingly modest.

In 1748 the anonymous author of an essay entitled The Art of Painting included Monamy among "those painters of our nation, now living, many of whom have distinguished themselves and are justly esteemed eminent masters".

Monamy died in 1749, and Vertue then wrote an unpublished obituary notice:

Slide 4: Errors in Red

ordinary painting: this term has been repeatedly misinterpreted in much subsequent comment

Vertue was mistaken about Monamy's place of birth and his age at death. These errors have been seriously misleading in later comment. Otherwise the account appears to be fair, although Monamy's late infirmity and decay seem over-stressed. The insertion of the word Londini after marionorum pictor I take to be of some significance, if only minor. I also think it worth noting that Vertue was a low-profile Roman Catholic, and a Stuart adherent. Slide 5

In 1758 the editor of the Critical Review, Tobias Smollett, planted a puff for Scott, as follows: "Mr Scot … [is in] no way inferior to the celebrated names of Vanderveld and Monamy." In my view, Scott barely qualifies as a genuine marine painter, although he was incessantly promoted by Horace Walpole as such for forty years.

Monamy's works were found in houses throughout Britain, including the royal collection at Kensington Palace. Lord Torrington, the Nelson of his day, owned five large canvases. Others included Charles Jennens, whose collection of 465 oils is listed in Dodsley's London and its Environs, 1761, where Monamy, but not Scott, appears with Raphael, Claude, Rembrandt, Poussin, and similar masters. James Gibbs and Samuel Scott both owned oils by Monamy; and there is plenty more evidence of his widespread appeal.

Following the death of the Earl of Bute, the former Tory Prime Minister, in 1792, a sale by Christie's of his collection was held in 1796. This was the first to consist almost entirely of marine paintings. It included 7 Brookings, 6 Monamys and 3 Scotts. The highest price paid for a Monamy, a burning ship at night, was seven guineas; the highest for a Scott was £5-15-6. [Slide: Bute Sale]

In 1805 the pseudonymous David Hughson noted "a fine piece of shipping by Monami" at Painter-Stainer's Hall. Slide 6. The status of painter-staining had declined steeply by this date, but Hughson helpfully describes the trade as comprising house-, ship-, sign-, & coach-painting. He might have added theatrical scene-painting.

In 1823 the artist and writer W.H.Pyne remarked that "Monamy …. served his apprenticeship on London Bridge, and exhibited his works in the window of his shop, to the delight of the sons of Neptune, men and boys, who were seen in crowds gazing at his wondrous art." In 1828, J.T.Smith, Keeper of Prints at the British Museum, recalled the existence of a coach painting, and a street sign depicting Admiral Vernon's ship "extremely well painted by Peter Monamy, the famous marine painter".

By 1866, a hundred and seventeen years after Monamy's death, the memory of his fame had become decidedly hazy in the writings of the Redgrave brothers Samuel and Richard, but it was still possible for Julian Marshall in 1895 to say of Monamy that he had been "reckoned the finest painter of shipping in England".

After this, almost nothing but murk prevails, with the very occasional illumination, such as the reference by Marcel Brion in 1964 to "the sensitive and agitated seascapes of Peter Monamy". It seems slightly sad that it needs a perceptive Frenchman to register an intelligent appreciation of the defining qualities of an English painter.

Second Thread

The second critical thread begins in 1780 with the Anecdotes of Horace Walpole. I admit to having conceived a strong dislike of this elegant author. Dallaway (1826), J.T.Smith (1828), Whitley (1928), Lipking (1970), and Pears (1988) all allude, fairly mildly, to the bias and distortions in Walpole's commentaries. Lord Liverpool, in a letter to John Wilson Croker, dated 23rd August, 1824, was refreshingly blunt, and stated that he believed Walpole "to have been as bad a man as ever lived". Croker, then Secretary to the Admiralty, responded with hearty agreement, and declared he was anxious to prevent Walpole from "poisoning the sources of history" as well as "the minds of posterity". (The Croker Papers, 1885, Vol I, p.272). Lord Macaulay, in The Edinburgh Review, October 1833, was more than savage in his demolition.

Walpole notes that during the reign of George I, "the arts were sunk to their lowest ebb in Britain". "The new monarch was devoid of taste"; it was more natural for him "to be content with, or even partial to, whatever he found established, than to seek for improvement and foreign ornament". "No reign … produced fewer works that will deserve the attention of posterity". Walpole places Monamy squarely in the reign of George I, 1714-1727, despite the fact that Monamy outlived this George by 22 years.

Walpole selectively curtailed and edited Vertue's notes, removing almost all favourable comment. While conceding that Monamy was a "good" painter, he added that Monamy "had little reason to expect the fame he afterwards acquired". He made facetious fun of "the shallow waters that rolled under his window". The truth is that Walpole in all his writings compulsively promoted his protégé Samuel Scott at Monamy's expense. It bears repeating that Scott, although well-patronised by the nobility, was never highly esteemed by knowledgeable collectors of the marine genre.

Between 1805 and 1840 Walpole's words were reprinted almost verbatim in Pilkington's Connoisseur's Dictionary, 1805, edited by Fuseli; by Bryan, 1816; and Cunningham, 1840. An erratum slip was inserted in the Pilkington volume: "for Jersey read Guernsey", which was ignored. Bryan volunteered that Monamy's "calms, particularly, are sunny and transparent"; a perception that became mindlessly magnified over the succeeding 180 years. Cunningham replaced "good painter" with "excellent", but otherwise Walpole's sly and malicious little note reigned unchallenged. Slide 7

The Redgrave brothers in 1866 were sympathetically inclined towards Monamy's memory, but they had practically no understanding of the marine genre, and equally little familiarity with Monamy's works. They mention a painting at Hampton Court, but this seems actually to have been by van de Velde. In 1878 Samuel Redgrave followed Bryan in repeating that Monamy "is reputed to have excelled in calms". This contrasts amusingly with Dr Hofstede de Groot, who in 1918 noted, when comparing Monamy with van de Velde, that he "ihm besonders in den bewegten Seen äusserlich ziemlich nahe kommt".

The nameless contributor to the DNB in 1894 chipped in with: "He devoted himself to drawing the shipping and other similar subjects on the Thames". I have found precisely two of Monamy's 500 plus views which are clearly located on the Thames: one at Greenwich, and the other in front of the old Thames-side Watermen's Hall. This DNB writer's personal ignorance of anything at all concerning Monamy is total. Bryan's 1816 dictionary reappeared in a savagely revised edition by Williamson, 1910, who instanced two paintings, neither of which are by Monamy. Slide 8

During the 20th century the re-cycled commentaries multiply exponentially. "His ocean is invariably the weakest part of his work". "He seemed never to be able to escape from the sickly hues and uninspiring forms of shallow water." Grant; 1926. "The late seventeenth century and the next hundred years were entirely lacking in originality." Monamy's paintings "are what we should expect from a former house-painter". Chatterton; 1926, 1927, 1928. "His knowledge of the sea was much less than his knowledge of ships and there is a faint air of calico about much of his water." Waterhouse; 1953. All of this bears little or no relation at all to Monamy's actual paintings. Slide 9

During the 1960s and '70s Michael Robinson was the great authority on the van de Veldes. Blinded by his obsession with them he had formed a mental picture of Monamy as a half-competent journeyman who had started as an assistant copyist in the van de Velde studio, and ended as an old drunk who rolled around London painting signboards for the price of a swig of gin. This image never quite reached print, but it is almost recognizable in various OUP compilations: "Peter Monamy, who so often copied van de Velde's compositions slavishly. He found his subjects almost entirely in shipping on the Thames. He developed a meticulous style based on that of the van de Veldes, and his work has little variety." The latest of these ridiculous travesties appeared in 1997. Slide 10.

Although my articles in 1981 and 1983 (the second one greatly encouraged, I wish to acknowledge, by Michael Robinson) were a pioneering attempt to establish the truth, and were researched with integrity, I have been puzzled and even amazed at the hostility they seem to have generated, and the disregard with which they have been received. One of them was referenced in the Grove Dictionary of Art in 1996. The writer's entry for Monamy makes glaring mistakes of fact, and he seems set on contradicting my every point. A book entitled Peter Monamy & His Circle, self-published by F.B.Cockett, appeared in 2000. Although this copies my 1981 article for the first 15 pages, it mainly consists of a number of reproductions collected almost at random. Sixteen of these are not, in my opinion, of sufficient authenticity to merit inclusion in a serious study of Monamy's oeuvre, and four of them are reproduced back to front. The book displays little or no understanding of either art or history, or the maritime world in general. The recent entry in the ODNB of 2004 does for my research what Walpole did for Vertue's notes.

Three: Reality

What Monamy's less pretentious contemporaries had seen in his paintings was the representation of felt reality; and what modern graduates of an institution like the Courtauld seem unable to concede is that naïve art is not synonymous with bad art. I can't do justice to the full reality of Monamy's influence and achievement in this short paper, but will try to give some impression by showing a succession of slides. The first few pictures focus on a painting now in the NMM. They illustrate the strange inability of critics and curators alike to look at Monamy's work, and understand what they are seeing.

Slides 11, 13
Slide 12

This painting includes a small boat with GR inscribed on its stern. It was therefore painted after the accession of George I in 1714, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the visit of the Queen of Portugal in 1708. The painting does not appear to be signed. The misinformation in the above box is taken directly from the official website of the National Maritime Museum. Note: July, 2009. This comment has finally been replaced with a more accurate text.

The second set of slides demonstrates the importance of marine painting to Englishmen at the beginning of the C18th. This has almost nothing to do with the van de Veldes, but reflects the awareness of the whole country, and especially the Londoner, of the significance of sea trade. The ocean was the boundless gateway to riches and glory for alert and commercially minded citizens, and their enthusiastic patronage of an art genre which matched their interests was natural and instinctive. This early C18th taste was secular and bourgeois, Protestant and Whig. It celebrated the Hanoverian accession; and anticipated, with passionate longing, the achievement of British world-wide maritime supremacy. Pride in England's naval prowess was so powerful it even infected a fair portion of the crypto-Catholics and Stuart sympathizers. By the middle of the C19th enthusiasm for the genre had declined, and it gradually became of specialized interest only. As a native art genre it is now virtually ignored by English art historians. Slides 14, 15, 16

The final group of slides displays a fraction of Monamy's prolific and remarkably varied oeuvre. These paintings are contrasted with the inaccuracies to be found in almost every modern commentary, up to the present day. Slides 17-20

circa 2600 words

conference slides & notes
conversation pieces: a closer look
monamy website index


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